Those industrious, perennially fiddling Victorians gave us a huge swath of modern contrivances that today we take for granted. Bicycles, Christmas cards, postage stamps, concrete, sewing machines, Morse code, skyscrapers, comic books, subways, rubber tires … the list goes on and on. And in Great Britain, 19th-Century tinkerers also innovated when it came to flesh and fur, creating and codifying dozens upon dozens of dog breeds that thrive even to the present day.
But as any inventor knows, prototypes are an iffy business. First attempts at even the most brilliant ideas are almost always crude and halting; perfection demands practice and patience. Most of the time, it’s best not to see how the sausage is made.
But in 19th-Century London, there was a place where one could see dog history unfold, and breeds such as the Mastiff evolve – in a working-class, canal-side district dubbed Kensal New Town.
“The dwellings themselves are afflicted with all the disorders that houseflesh is heir to,” intoned Hallberger’s Illustrated Magazine in an 1876 article, a description that could just as easily apply to a distemperate dog as ramshackle houses. “They are, for the most part, terribly out of the perpendicular, suffering from affectations of the spine, broken ribs, and swellings about the knees. Skin disease is also prevalent, large patches of plaster having peeled off here and there, and communicated a generally mangy look to the lopsided tenements.”
But there was a stand-out amid these “unpromising habitations,” a freshly painted, “cozy” little abode. This was the “Canine Castle,” and its lord and master was “Old” Bill George, who valued that prefix not because of his 70 or so years, but rather “as an indication of the affection in which he is held by dogs and men.”
A rare photo of Bill George, London's famous dog dealer.
And that affection was outsized, to say the least. Bill George was a dog dealer, a buyer and seller and sometimes breeder of animals that he kept tethered in his dog yard, numbering in the hundreds. Despite his unglamorous vocation, mentions of him invariably heaped on glowing adjectives, from “celebrated” to “great,” “eminent” to “unique.” He earned a cartoon in Punch magazine in 1846, cementing his place in the public consciousness of England, and perhaps farther afield, as George claimed to have been visited by foreign royalty. In the late 1830s, Charles Dickens reportedly took strolls around the Canine Castle while researching the character Bill Sikes' dog, Bull’s Eye, in his novel Oliver Twist.
“There could be no question that what Bill didn’t know about a dog wasn’t worth talking about,” wrote Finch Mason in a 1907 edition of Fore’s Sporting Notes and Sketches. “No matter what breed it was you wanted, he’d get it for you, and no fault to be found if you didn’t mind paying for it.”
According to accounts of the day, George was illiterate: One writer claimed he heard that George commenced his letters to clients with the bungled salutation “Honored Cur.” (His business name was spelled rather creatively as well, sometimes appearing as “K-nine Castle” or “K.9. Castle.”) Regardless of George’s own correspondence skills, he delighted in receiving mail playfully addressed to “Lord George,” “King William” and “General George.” Reportedly, a letter sent to “Bill George, Devil’s Castle, Bloodhound Corner, Tyke Lane, London” reached him, but another, inscribed “Mr. Bill George, Dog Fancier, London” was returned to the sender. In what may be an apocryphal account, George asked the name of the postmaster general, and, on hearing it was Lord John Manners, replied, “Tell those fools in the Post Office that if his Lordship don’t know me, I don’t know manners.”
Mason the writer remembers the older Bill George as a rather matter-of-fact figure, “a tall, spare old man, attired in a roomy pepper-and-salt coat, cord breeches and tan gaiters, a tall hat on his head, and a blue bird’s eye ‘fogle’ tied in many folds around his neck.” As a young man, George was a bare-knuckle prizefighter, and was hard pressed to leave his love of the sport behind: As late as 1862, the year he turned 60, he was apprehended in London by police for refereeing an illegal boxing match in Newbury County, about 50 miles outside the city.
George’s connection with pugilism had canine parallels, too. Before striking out in business for himself, he apprenticed for dog dealer Ben White, who bred and sold Old English Bulldogs, which were used for dog fighting and bull baiting.
Business card from Ben White, Bill George's mentor.
White’s swan song came in 1825, when he procured dogs for the sponsor of a fight that pitted a lion named Nero against six dogs. The band struck up Rule Britannia before the dogs were slipped from their iron chains and the tame, Edinburgh-bred cat crouched to greet them, more out of perplexity than ferocity. The subsequent public outcry was so great that dog fighting was banned locally, though White reportedly continued supplying gladiators for the illicit sport in secret.
By 1835, the English Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, and dog fighting was banned nationwide. White died that same year, and George lost no time in buying the property and business from White’s widow, renaming the enterprise with his lofty “Canine Castle” moniker.
George realized that not only his business, but the Bulldog itself, needed to move in a kindler, gentler direction. And he succeeded on both scores, making a reputation for himself as an honest businessman, and his Bulldogs as docile, loyal companions.
Crib and Rosa, 1811, the type of Old English Bulldogs bred by George's mentor, Ben White.
“He carried on the business of a dog dealer and breeder in such a way that he became noted as an honourable dealer at a time when dog dealing was looked upon as an occupation whose professors were not particularly noted for their practice of honesty,” wrote Bulldog breed authority Edgar Farman. “… When during the latter part of his life, dog shows became the vogue, his kennel produced dogs as well able to win on the show bench and breed winners, as, formerly, specimens of their strain had been able to hold their own in the dog pit.”
The Hallberger’s correspondent, the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, described his 1876 tour of the Canine Castle in detail, noting there were some 400 dogs on the premises, and marveling at the sheer variety on display.
“Domiciled in great wooden houses, carefully littered down, are superb specimens of other great dogs. Mastiffs, with their black muzzles, and soft, lowtoned bark; deep-voiced bloodhounds, with great hanging lips, and eyes placed close together, giving them a curiously-vicious aspect to the highest type of the hound …” he wrote. “Magnificent deerhounds, rough of coat, shake their long limbs, and ask with their beautiful eyes for a word of encouragement.”
George was also very active in Mastiffs, starting off several Victorian breeders. His popular stud dog, George’s Tiger, was bred by James Wiggleworth Thompson, coming down from his foundation bitch Juno, a brindle with an unknown pedigree procured by a teenaged Thompson from George. Thompson said he gifted the puppy to George as a token of appreciation for the straightforwardness he had exhibited in all their dealings. But the fact that the puppy had severely crooked legs from having fallen and nearly drowned in a tanning pit likely also factored heavily into the decision.
George saw beyond the crippling injury to the dog’s much-needed type, and Tiger – so named for his impressive head – reproduced his quality in the whelping box. Mastiff fancier M.B. Wynn, writing in the American Kennel Register in 1885, noted that the stone-colored dogs of the Tiger line were known for their “magnificent heads,” and “jet-black ears and muzzle.”
George’s canny ability to find a good dog no matter who bred it also helped produce one of the most famous Mastiffs to first grace the show ring. George procured a breeding pair (appropriately named Adam and Eve) for Captain Garnier at auction. George purchased the gray-muzzled bitch at Leadenhall Market, while the male, while purported to be from Lyme Hall line, was believed to have a "dash of Boardhound," or Great Dane, in his pedigree. Garnier sailed with them to Canada, where he was posted, and returned with their puppy, whose name was Lion. Bred to Lukey's Countess, Lion produced Lukey’s Governor, the first successful Mastiff of the modern dog-show era who in 1867 he was chosen to illustrate the breed standard. (As evidence of just how porous pedigrees were in that age, Lion was also bred to a Scottish Deerhound named Lufra, and their offspring Marquis can be found in both Deerhound and Wolfhound pedigrees today.)
It is fair to say that without George's intervention, the groundbreaking Mastiff Lukey's Governor, who illustrated the 1867 standard, might never have been born.
To be sure, George had his detractors, among them Wynn, the American Mastiff fancier. “Bill George himself, like many modern London breeders, was somewhat cramped for room, and having a number of dogs on the ground, his home-reared puppies were neglected, not getting sufficient exercise and liberty,” he wrote, “the result being that his mastiff-breeding operations were, I believe, anything but satisfactory."
George’s business card bore a Bulldog’s head as a crest, and that was quite intentional. Though he sold and bred Mastiffs along with many other breeds, it was with Bulldogs that he made his mark. Indeed, George eventually expanded the breed’s size boundaries in both directions, setting the course for the heavier, modern English Bulldog, and preparing the stage for its diminutive French cousin.
In 1840, George imported a Spanish Bulldog, a distinct breed of fighting dog that was known as the Alano on the Iberian Peninsula. (The Alano Español is similar to the Presa Canario, and there is reason to believe it contributed to the development of several Molosser breeds from South America, including the Cimarron Uruguayo, Dogo Argentino and possibly the Fila Brasileiro.) Significantly larger than the English Bulldogs of the time, the 90-pounder was a brindle pied, and his head was so impressive that George named him “Big Headed Billy.” (Unable to part with the spectacular headpiece, George had it taxidermied, and displayed it in a glass case in the Canine Castle. Indeed, his home was a mini-museum, with stuffed dogs in the windows, and engravings and paintings of dogs covering the walls.) Later in the 19th Century, still more of the Spanish dogs were imported, eventually leading to the formation of the Bulldog Club to save the British Bulldog from the “impending introduction into its veins of blood of the Spanish milk-cart dog.”
Etching by Francisco Goya, titled Echan Perro al Toro ("They loose dogs on the bull"), 1815-16, depicting uncropped Alanos.
Billy was a success in the whelping box, and by no coincidence he was the grandsire of George’s famous white Bulldog, known as George’s Dan. Weighing in at an impressive 65 pounds, Dan was sold for the then-astronomical sum of £100, roughly $15,000 in today’s dollars. (Press accounts tell us that after the purchase, Dan’s young new owner took him to Long’s Hotel on Bond Street, described as an establishment where “the fastest and best men in London lounged in and out of the coffee room from breakfast time till well on in the afternoon, and smoked, drank champagne, talked horsy, and swore loudly.” Perhaps in keeping with the company, Dan jumped through a pane of glass, though he managed not to injure himself.)
Bill George's famed Bulldog, Dan. George's son Alfred is on the left.
In Hallberger’s, Freiligrath waxed on about heavyweight Dan and his descendants, “who receive us with a mighty clamour, as we step into the yard. They are ferocious in aspect, these mighty bull-dogs, but by no means truculent in disposition, being, in fact, a living proof that it is not always safe to judge by appearances. Their loud barking and tearing at their chains is mere sound and fury, signifying nothing but the naturally doggy desire to be spoken to, patted, and caressed.”
The dogs were white – “or rather pink, for the most part,” he qualified. “They nearly all boast a patch of brindle, most lovely when placed over the eye or at the base of the tail – beauty spots bequeathed to his descendants by the patriarch ‘Big-headed Billy.’”
Other than Dan, several of George’s Bulldogs are writ large in breed history. Among them was King Dick, bred by Jacob Lamphier of Birmingham, who paid a tidy sum to buy him back from George once he saw how well he turned out. The fallow-and-white bitch Lola Montes refused to breed for quite a long time – until George turned her loose in the kennel, after which she became an enthusiastic matron.
While George was celebrated for his line of “heavy weights,” he was also known for his “Toy Bulldogs,” which might have been too popular for their own good.
In the 1860s, smaller, lightweight Bulldogs were quite common – “so much so that dogs of the breed that scaled over 28 lbs were not encouraged at such shows as Birmingham, which was at that period the most important exhibition of its kind in England,” explained an 1899 issue of Country Life magazine. “Then by some freak of fashion the Toy Bulldog became all the rage in Paris.” Enter George, who began receiving “carte blanche commissions from French customers” for the small, compact dogs. Thanks to George’s enthusiastic exporting, the magazine harrumphed, “England was denuded of all the best specimens.” Their offspring later returned to England under the banner of a new breed: the French Bulldog.
Even if others took issue with his methods, few were willing to cross George and risk falling from his graces. In his 1907 story, Finch Mason explains that artists were frequent visitors to the Canine Castle, where they would procure models for their paintings. He recounts how one member of the Royal Academy of Arts ventured to George’s dog yard to find a Bloodhound for that purpose, bringing along another animal painter to help him select.
When they arrived, George was not there, and so his son Bill Jr. showed them around. “Several bloodhounds were on view, but not one of them good enough,” Mason explained. They were about to leave when they encountered a returning George, “who, on hearing the story, severely rebuked his son for insulting an old customer … by showing him the lot of rubbish he had.”
George led the two men to a stall where they saw a magnificent Bloodhound resting on the straw. The dog had been sold to a foreign buyer, which is why young Bill had not mentioned him. He was also, one of the artists realized, a dog that had been recently stolen from one of the country’s most accomplished painters.
Since the shipping date was a week away, George arranged to have his son bring the dog to the studio for a sitting every day at 11 a.m., and then return with him to the Canine Castle.
Now the artist that was a longtime customer of George’s – the article does not clearly indicated which of the two it was – had a dilemma. “Not only desirous of restoring the lost dog to his rightful owner, who was nearly broken-hearted at its loss,” Mason wrote, “he was still more anxious not to quarrel with Bill George, who would naturally decline in future to supply him with any more canine models if he became aware that he had been ‘split’ upon ...”
The matter required great diplomacy, and so a strategy was planned. After the third day of sittings, as young Bill George, Jr., walked the Bloodhound back home, puffing contentedly on his pipe, the dog’s owner conveniently happened to pass by in his carriage.
“The plot succeeded admirably, every detail being carried out to the letter,” Mason reported. “Young Bill, completely taken by surprise, was highly indignant at first, and flatly declined to surrender the dog at any price. An invitation, however, to settle the matter by arbitration at the adjacent police-station somehow did not fall in with his views, and in the end he reluctantly handed over his precious charge to the owner.”
The Bloodhound’s shady provenance seems to be the exception rather than the rule in George’s dealings, and perhaps he had no idea that the dog was stolen goods; otherwise, it is unlikely he would have paraded him so publically. Indeed, George’s reputation as an honest trader and a brilliant dog man perseveres through the decades, and – in the occasional Wikipedia reference – even the centuries. It was, perhaps, all he had left: George died in 1881 on a downward turn of his luck, leaving a paralyzed wife who was so poorly off the editor of Sporting Life magazine organized a collection for her. But as far as debts are concerned, George and his contemporaries are owed an incalculable sum of gratitude for helping steward the dog breeds we treasure today.
“He was a character in his day and generation,” read his obituary in the Kennel Chronicle. “He is described by one who knew him as a sturdy, straightforward, honest dealing man, and known to be trustworthy by all who came in contact with him. Bill George remained an honourable man in a business which abounded with temptations.”